Sarcasm is a tricky beast. Some find it hilarious, while others deem it humiliating. When done well, it’s often indecipherable — a straight-faced delivery can majorly mess with literal-minded folks that just “don’t get it.”
And this is when you’re standing right next to each other.
On the phone, you can sometimes catch it: A brief pause. A mumbled phrase. A rising inflection. Or even an, “I was joking, you idiot!” can clue you in.
But with the age of digital communication taking over, sarcasm can wreak havoc on a comment stream, or raise questions on the authenticity of an email. Relationships may falter from a friendly, “I hate you.”
This is nothing new. Before the invention of the telephone, I’m sure our pioneers ran into similar issues. Imagine a bearded and be-piped colonist chuckling to himself as he wrote a letter to his loved-ones across the pond:
Life in the new world is grand. I quite enjoy waking up with vermin in my bed. They keep my feet warm.
Now, picture the shock on the face of his properly night-capped mum, or the wonder in the eyes of his betrothed as she determines if “vermin” is really code for “hussy.” And then think of the weeks (the months!) that might go by until another letter could be sent to ease their minds and make it right. Pure torture. All because of a lonely man’s tryst with sarcasm.
Today, we’re able to fix the damage more quickly — we of the winky faces 😉 and (apologetic) parentheses; we purveyors of ironic italics — of just-kidding em dashes. We have qualifiers in our back pockets, and scare quotes at the ready.
Sometimes, though, I think it’s best to abide by that lovely proverb that always reminds me of Caroline Ingalls (“Ma”) from the Little House on the Prairie series. “Least said, soonest mended,” she might say when her feisty daughter, Laura, was about to insert her blackened boot down her own throat. It was meant as a warning; “Shut your yap, the damage is done.”
And Laura would nod, and then…eventually got thrown into juvie. Wait, maybe that was Anne of Green Gables? In any case, it’s hard to squelch that desire to clarify. To illuminate. To get the last word in, folks. Hard stuff, indeed.
Still, it’s something to think about. We leave comments that can be misconstrued. Tweets that are far too familiar. Emails that neglect to display the proper emoticon.
And when we write stories (and by “we,” I mean “me”) we need to consider the reader, and whether they’ll see those carefully placed one-liners as memorable gems, or middle-fingers in the face of good taste.
In those cases, maybe it’s better to consider sticking with sarcasm’s brown-nosing cousin — wit.
Find me on Twitter @amandahoving